Tag Archive: colonial discourse

Stuck in the Middle

As we approach the completion of the course, I look back in awe at the many frameworks through which we have analyzed Frankenstein. My most recent blog posts have discussed the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, and explored Gayatri Spivak’s ideas on colonial discourse. Though these theories are inherently unrelated, they force the critic to assign the novel and characters of Frankenstein to one of two major categories within each theory. By this I mean that Freud’s psychoanalysis forces an identity with the “self” or the “other,” and Spivak’s colonial discourse with the “colonizer” or “subaltern.”

These individual terms and categories are not as important in themselves as compared with what they imply about Frankenstein. I would argue to say that these specific theories, and theories as such, reinforce the idea of the reigning binary throughout the piece and the thought that a character cannot exist outside the constraints of the masculine or the feminine, in which the latter is subordinate. The self versus the other and the colonizer versus the subaltern take on the roles of the masculine versus the feminine respectively. In my post entitled “Failing to See Past His Internal Atrocity,” I examine a passage within the novel in which the creature looks into the pool, sees his reflection, and realizes the existence of his double. He experiences great discomfort at this realization, tension caused by the coexistence and disfunction of the self and the double, the masculine versus the feminine. The significance of this tension is that there is indeed an existing binary that leaves one  to identify with one side or the other, and implies that their coexistence is capable of generating inward conflict.

In my second post, I suggest the idea that the author of the novel is solely able to remove the text from the trappings of the masculine and the feminine. Throughout class and blog discussions we have failed to define an entity as masculine without reference of the feminine and vice versa. By failing to mention her great nation in her novel, I proved that Shelley successfully removed Britain from the binary of the colonizer and the subaltern, the masculine and the feminine, and avoids the subjection of Britain to one or the other.  Shelley seems to give her nation the power and ability to surmount the confines created by the characteristics of the masculine or feminine, as if previously one could not describe an entity outside of these two concepts. The discussion of the creature in my first blog post shows that he, as other characters in the novel, are subject to these concepts. Never have they been proven to exist outside of the masculine and the feminine, proving the malleability of their identity and an inability for them to stand apart from these abstracts. I would conclude that from the ideas examined in the blogs, Shelley acts as the sole individual able to remove an entity from the traps of the masculine and the feminine, proved by her omission of Britain from the novel.

Through critical psychoanalytic and post-colonial critical techniques, the highly violent nature of the creature in Frankenstein may be explicated. This movement may be accomplished first through an analysis of the characters in Lacanian terms. Like any other human individual, the creature undergoes interaction with an evolutionary set of psychological realms, initiated by the infantile mirror stage. This developmental state is characterized by an idealized recognition of bodily coherence and fullness, described singularly as the “imaginary.”

However, there is something subtly abnormal and perverted about this process within the narrative, resulting in highly unusual implications. In his intellectual infancy, the creature attaches his sense of self-definition not to his own body, but to the collective whole of the De Lacey family. His ego or “I,” finds a strange substitute in the contextual relations of the group, rather than his personal sense of bodily coherence. This state is able to maintain itself as long as the creature can inhabit a position of outside observation, free of linguistic structure or interaction with the De Laceys.

The necessary and inevitable rise of the symbolic state eventually comes to overturn the peace of the imaginary. The creature realizes his own faculty for linguistic representation and abstract symbolism, introducing the concept of intellectual lack through the inability of language to completely invoke a form, and subsequently forcing the full sense of ego to retreat into the form of “ideal-I.” Only after this process has been completed, does the creature perceive his true form in a pool of water. By seeing himself after he has moved into the symbolic state, his ideal-I has been completely broken or fractured. He comes to a realization that his ego is deeply fissured, and that it is totally inconsistent with his true nature. The fundamental human drive towards the coherence of the ideal-I is stolen from him, and he is left only with inner contention and conflict.

However, there is some hope for the creature. It may be possible for him to repair his imaginary self-definition by gaining acceptance with the De Laceys, as his idealized sense of self was based upon their family as a collective whole. Accordingly, he adopts a role parallel to the feminine subaltern place of Safie within the household. In this debased role, he receives the second half of his lesson in linguistics. The creature is fed and accepts the nuanced language of colonial discourse, adopting the sense of ideological subjugation. However, there is a flaw here as well. Instead of maintaining the superficial wholeness expressed by Safie, the creature is a maelstrom of discord. His loss of ideal-I has rendered him unable to mask the conflicting elements of the colonial discourse. Accordingly, his attempt at integration fails, and his ideal-I completely vanishes.

Here, the literary critic may perceive that the two linguistic educations, and the two failures, expose the true nature of the colonial symptom. The De Lacey family served as a microcosm for western European dominance and colonization. Through his first failure at drawing an ideal-I from the cumulative whole, the creature destroys the concept that colonial society is full, whole, natural, and free of conflict. Through his second failure in his inability to adopt the subaltern role, the creature shows that each socially striated placement is wrought with ideological tumult, and that this societal system is not legitimate. The creature is the physical manifestation of the latent violence hidden behind the colonial façade, the corporeal avatar of a fissured reality. He is now marked with discord, and will not stop in his quest to subvert the stability of colonial discourse, revealing a form of violence present everywhere.

The Power of Ambiguity

Much of the power of this passage comes from paying meticulous attention to the use of language. What characterizes the early lines of the passage is a very binary logic, a sort of “us vs. them” mentality that polarizes history and places people/cultures into distinct categories. As the creature begins to speak of his lessons, his words are strong and assuming; there is a distinct separation of “the slothful Asiatics” and “the stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians”. This seems to continue when he speaks of the “wonderful virtue of the early Romans”, but there is a fumble: “I heard of…the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans – of their subsequent degenerating – of the decline of that mighty empire…” Read out loud, the sentence sounds clunky and awkward, as if the words feel unnatural to the creature as he speaks them. He basically says the same thing twice:  “…of their subsequent degenerating – of the decline of that mighty empire…” This repetition, combined with very strong punctuation that emphasizes pause, reinforces the feeling of uncertainty that surrounds his speech. What’s more, paying attention to the distinct binary that characterized the previous lines, we might expect a lesser “them” to appear alongside the Romans, but there is none. He speaks only of the decline of their “mighty empire”, a decline that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue too well.

The polarization of history reappears in the next line, but this time there seems to be less certainty: “I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere, and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.”  There is a bit of an us (the colonizers) vs. them (the Natives) dynamic here, but this time his words are not quite as potent: there is a noticeable lack of adjectives to describe the discovery of the Americas, and even his use of the word “hapless” to describe the Natives is not very specific – as we’ve seen in this class, this word can be interpreted equally validly as an expression of sympathy and understanding, or as an acknowledgement of the necessity of colonization, or both, or neither. Instead of just debating what exactly the monster meant, I think it’s important to acknowledge the significance of the very ambiguity of the meaning. Does the monster know himself where his sympathy lies?

This speculation is made more justifiable when we look at the text on which Felix is basing his lessons: A quick Google search reveals that “Ruins of Empire”, as the title suggests, explores the historical destruction of powerful empires that seemed invincible until their fall. As a whole, the text also critiques what were, at the time, modern ideologies, and uses the past to justify their inevitable dissolution. The author, it is worth mentioning, was himself a revolutionist. Felix, too, is an exile from society, and so the fact that he is giving these lessons forces us to question the true nature of his education of Sofia. Why would his lessons seem, at first glance, so dominated by the masculine colonial discourse that defines the very society from which he is exiled?

I think that this passage signals a degradation of the traditionally dominant colonial ideology. Change and destruction are a universal law, as applicable to the Romans as it is to the “original inhabitants” of the Americas. I think that it is this, the discovery that history is not defined by clear-cut boundaries, but by a natural process of degradation and change, that disturbed the creature as he spoke of the Romans, and blurred his identification with either the Native Americans or the colonizers. And so the blurring of categories where before there were boundaries, the rising of an apparent confusion where before there was certainty and arrogance, are perhaps an indication of an ideology that is experiencing change, or if not, in keeping with the theme of “Ruins of Empire”, an ideology that requires it. And isn’t the nature of colonization inherently one that transcends the binary logic, since there is so much mimicry and blending of cultures? In that case, the phallocentric colonial discourse is, in a way, naïve, assuming, and destined to decline. As if to reflect this view, “Ruins of Empire” is itself written “in imitation of eastern authors.” 

In the face of these lessons and his own changing expression of them, the creature’s own role as a subaltern is necessarily ambiguous and dynamic. After his lessons, he reflects: “The words induced me to turn towards myself…what was I?” (109) But the fact that he internalizes this new knowledge of the world and is not immediately certain of its meaning suggests that whatever he is, and however little power he holds in society, he has the insight to define his own role and his own views. The subaltern is not voiceless. 

In the last paragraph of page 108, the Creature tells of hearing Felix teach Safie about language by reading out and explaining a book on the world’s empires. The creature remarks that had it not been for Felix’s explanations, it “should not” have understood the book. Here it is noteworthy that “could not” was not used. The use of “should” implies judgment and not just ability. This means that the creature is aware of and accepts its intellectual inferiority to Felix who is effectively the man of the house, and by analogy a representative of the western patriarchy. However Spivak’s understanding of the subaltern, personified by the Indian widow of colonial times (p. 287-8), goes against the Creature’s thinking. Spivak argues that it is not so much the inability to speak as it is the inability to convey that holds the subaltern back. And so the subaltern unwillingly and unknowingly gets trapped in the framework of communication that is monopolized by the patriarchy. In the Creature’s case however, its thoughts are not being refracted by the language it is learning. The Creature could have said “could” but did not, unlike the Indian widow who was faced with a lose-lose scenario.

Furthermore, as the Creature continues its narration it recalls several prominent civilizations. Its recollection of the cultures on first sight appears to be evidence of the Creature’s submission to phallocentric-western-colonial discourse. The Creature talks about “Asiatics” and “original inhabitants” of the Americas. But in contrast to such generalizations for non-Western cultures, it talks specifically of “Greeks” and “Romans”. This shared bias with the Western perception apparently contrasts with the Creature’s independence as explained above.  But the fact is that such generalization can not be absolutely attributed to the creature. Perhaps Felix presented a biased condensation of the book’s contents which the Creature is accurately recalling. Or perhaps the book itself was biased and Felix and the Creature merely conveyed what they read and heard. Both these interpretations are acceptable because they reinforce what we already know of the colonial patriarchy in the west. However, for the Creature to have made these generalizations is extremely unlikely considering its intellectual immaturity and little exposure to society. So when the Creature seems to revel in the Greeks’ (“stupendous genius and mental activity”) and Romans’ (“wonderful virtue”) rise, and mourn their fall, it is merely mimicking what it heard without acknowledging any parity between the symbolic west and the symbolic orient. Therefore the polarity of the content of its recollection should not be reflected on the Creature.

It is clear, therefore, that the Creature’s similarity to Safie, or Sivak’s foreign colonized woman, in a post-colonial context is superfluous. It is also clear that the Creature, being so young, had not developed any substantial powers of discrimination. So when it wept at the tragedy of the Native Americans, it should have wept at the decline of the Western empires too. But it did not. However there is no basis for such varied behavior as well. The only explanation can be that the Creature wept because Safie wept. Perhaps Safie wept because she could identify with the predicament of the oppressed Native Americans but not with the fall of the empires that preceded those very oppressors. But the Creature could not. Because if the Creature had the ability to show sympathy and apathy for the Orient and the West, it would have been more hostile towards Felix who represented the latter.

In summary, this extract does not prove that Safie and the Creature are similar in essence. It merely highlights the Creature’s tendency, like an infant’s or a mirror’s, to imitate and express without prejudice at the shallowest level. And so any connections formed  are, like the image in a mirror, illusions.

The passage on 108-109 shows a step towards the creature’s transformation from subaltern to oppressor. When the creature overhears Felix’s education of Safie, he is also subjected to this pro-colonial education. In this education, he ends up thinking like a colonizer, which marks his rampage later in the book with an air of neocolonialism.

Felix’s choice of volume is the first instance colonial mockery, picked because its “style was framed in imitation of the eastern authors” (108).  Because of the nature of the information in the book, this mimicry is not as much a positive example of hybridity as it is another example of the colonizer forcing their ideas upon the colonized (this time, through the voice of the colonized). In this book, the creature learns of “stupendous genius” of Greeks and “wonderful virtues” of the Romans, but learns of Asian peoples as “slothful” and Native Americans as “hapless” (108- 109).

The first few descriptions are obvious examples of pro-colonial attitudes forcing unwanted negative traits onto the colonized cultures as stereotypes, but the last description is a little less immediately pro-colonial. Specifically, the creature’s reaction to this information causes some inconsistency in this passage. He “[weeps] with Safie” over the fate of the colonized Native Americans, which shows his connection to both Safie and the Native Americans as a fellow subaltern (maybe not a female subaltern, but just another member of the oppressed). Yet, the creature himself describes their fate as “hapless”: a word that implies bumbling and inevitability. Though he may be weeping at a fellow subaltern’s fate, he recognizes this fate as inevitable, thus propping up and accepting colonial discourse.

Another word in the passage must be addressed. Though the creature admits that the history gained was “cursory,” he also says the information gives him “an insight into the manners, governments, and religions of the different nations of the earth” (108). This, combined with his own descriptions of the cultures, shows that he has accepted this colonial logic: for when he tells of  hearing about the “slothful Asiatics,” those are still his own words and ideas being expressed.

In this passage, the subaltern is first shaped by colonial forces. This eventually pollutes the subaltern, believing their own colonization to be an inevitability. So, the creature’s transformation from oppressed to oppressor of subalterns (i.e. Justine) can be read as an instance of neocolonialism caused by the pollution of colonial discourse.